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Opinion: EPA writing new rules for Clean Air Act

There's a fight pending at the national level over that steak or pork chop you might have enjoyed recently. Under what's been dubbed the perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, "cow tax" the federal government would literally tax cow belches and the emi...

There's a fight pending at the national level over that steak or pork chop you might have enjoyed recently.

Under what's been dubbed the perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, "cow tax" the federal government would literally tax cow belches and the emissions from the other end, too.

The New York Times environment blog dubbed the notion both "absurd and terrifying," and the taxation of such emissions serves up more than enough chuckles to attract media attention and capture public attention.

When the Environmental Protection Agency set out to write new rules for the enforcement of the Clean Air Act last summer, it also attracted the attention of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. In December, Thune and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced a bill that would prevent the taxation of farm and ranch animals under the guise of the Clean Air Act.

Like ranchers who would have to pay such a tax, Thune did not find much humor in the idea.

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"Such fees would be a devastating burden on our already strained livestock producers here in South Dakota and across the country and would increase the cost of food to all Americans," Thune wrote in a recent column.

Thune relies on eye-popping per-animal estimates calculated by USDA of what the tax would be -- $90 per head of cattle, $125 per dairy cow and $20 per hog. The EPA's suggested regulation threshold of 100 tons of emissions per year would affect even the smallest agricultural operation, the USDA said in its official response to the EPA's call for public comments about the proposed new rules.

What's probably made things worse is that in the brightness of the new year, the prospect of a cow tax has grown confusing.

EPA spokesmen have said the agency has no intention of taxing the gas passed by livestock, and on Jan. 23 the agency issued an official statement: "EPA has not proposed or even suggested a cow tax." But the reason the agency started to rewrite its Clean Air Act enforcement rules was nothing less than a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In Massachusetts v. EPA, the court said greenhouse gases -- which include methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide all contained in the gas of livestock -- are pollutants governed by the Clean Air Act.

Then there seems to be a growing movement in favor of stricter regulation in general, coming from liberal activists and conservative bastions such as The Washington Times.

Nationally-known food guru and advocate for agriculture reform Michael Pollan has called for large-scale animal operations to be regulated "like the cities they are." Last year, the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Farm Production cited stress on animals as reason for the federal government to oversee agriculture animals raised in "intensive confinement."

"Unbeknownst to most Americans, no federal regulations protect animals while on the farm," reads the Pew report.

And in a recent editorial, The Washington Times had this to say: "The role that agriculture plays in the environment is a serious issue that clearly deserves attention." The newspaper cited a December United Nations meeting on climate change during which livestock was placed among the top two threats. The animals release 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, the U.N. says, "more even than from cars, buses and airplanes."

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So, while some critics of Thune's bill say the legislation is rooted in no more substance than say, flatus, many of those critics are also careful to avoid going on the record.

I tend to agree with Thune spokeswoman Andi Fouberg, who said: "This isn't something we dreamed up."

We'll soon know exactly what the EPA will or won't propose by way of regulating and taxing the greenhouse gases emitted by livestock. Even if that passes without incident, the march for more government oversight of the feedlots and hog barns has begun, for good or ill.

Denise Ross publishes Hoghouseblog.com. She writes about South Dakota's congressional delegation from Rapid City. Write to her at denise@hoghouseblog.com

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